The US Department of Agriculture recently made the decision to completely deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa, meaning that farmers can now freely plant these genetically engineered seeds anywhere…
The announcement on January 27th by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsac has raised alarm among many in the organic foods movement.
Why is this, and is it relevant to human health? After all, most of us don’t eat alfalfa. Yet it is relevant at many levels…
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and consumer health
Most of us do not eat alfalfa, but cows do, and most of us consume dairy products of some kind. If cows in dairy herds eat genetically modified (GM) alfalfa, the milk and other dairy products from those cows cannot be certified as organic. This poses a serious challenge for organic dairy farmers.
GM soybeans became the standard soybean product after they were first approved, and it is likely that the same pattern will prevail with GM alfalfa. That will make it difficult for organic dairy farmers to buy supplemental organic hay for their herds when they need it. In addition, if neighboring farms grow GM alfalfa, it is likely to contaminate the fields grown by organic farmers, making it difficult or impossible for them to certify their own alfalfa crops as organic.
How important is organic dairy for our health? I don’t drink milk, but I have organic milk with my cereal every morning. The documented risks of much non-organic milk include exposure of producing cows to genetically engineered hormones designed to increase milk production, as well as to antibiotics and pesticides. Significant amounts of these substances can be found in their milk. I prefer to pay a bit more for organic milk that I know to be safe.
What about the impact of other GM products on health? In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) stated that, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM has asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods.
There are eight GM food crops. Five major varieties, including soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beets, have bacterial genes inserted that allow these plants to survive an otherwise deadly dose of weed killer. Farmers use more herbicides on these GM crops and so the food has higher herbicide residues.
We eat these food products because one or more are in about 80 percent of our processed foods. None of these foods are labeled as containing GM food products, so, unless we buy organic, we have no way of making informed decisions when we go grocery shopping.
Some people wonder if the risks involved in genetic manipulation of our foods are overblown. Certainly Monsanto and other biotech companies prefer to downplay or deny any risks. Yet the following historical event suggests that genetic manipulation may be very hazardous.
In the 1980s, a mysterious new disease called Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS) killed dozens of Americans and caused illness or severe disability in several thousand other people. I was in practice then and recall the major concern about this. When a link with the protein supplement L-tryptophan became clear, it was eventually banned by the FDA. Many people avoided all L-tryptophan, but the key problem involved only one kind of L-tryptophan.
It turned out that the EMS cases could be traced back to L-tryptophan produced by one major Japanese firm. Later research pointed to genetic engineering in the production process that modified the L-tryptophan ever so slightly. The company subsequently destroyed all samples of the genetically engineered bacteria it had been using, but it has paid over $2 billion in compensation to victims of EMS who consumed its product.
Biotech companies claim that changes in the filtration process used by the company involved was at fault instead of the genetically engineered bacteria, but the evidence for this is flimsy.
Documented cases of EMS occurred in patients taking L-tryptophan produced with the genetically engineered bacteria before changes were made in the filtration process. No other companies making L-tryptophan ever used the genetically engineered process.
In spite of this tragic historical event, there is still no monitoring of GMO-related illnesses. Monsanto’s position is that long-term human safety studies are impossible to design and are not necessary. It convinced the FDA to make a ruling in the early 1990s that safety studies are unnecessary as long as the GM food products are similar to their standard counterparts except for the genetic engineering involved.
GMOs and global health
One of the arguments that Monsanto and other biotech companies use is that GMOs are the only way that we can prevent worldwide food shortages in the future, saying there is no other hope to keep up with population growth. This claim is a myth that has been scientifically discredited, but it continues to be repeated and believed by millions of people. In 2009, Mr. Vilsack said this about the need for GMOs: “I will tell you that the world is very concerned about the ever-increasing population of the globe and the capacity to be able to feed all of those people.”
Many top world scientists do not agree that GMOs are the answer. A major three-year effort with 900 participants and 110 countries, co-sponsored by the World Bank, FAO, UNESCO, and WHO evaluated the last 50 years of agriculture. Based on this, it prescribed the methods needed to meet the development and sustainability goals of reducing hunger and poverty, improving nutrition, health and rural livelihoods, and facilitating social and environmental sustainability. GMOs were not one of the needed methods! This report makes it clear that biotechnology is not up to the task.
National food policy
Unfortunately, national food policy is determined more by political considerations than scientific ones, even though many top scientists are concerned about possible long-range hazards to the health of our environment and those who live in it. Many people think GMOs should be put on hold until safety concerns can be resolved, but to question the safety of GMOs is simply not politically correct today. A quote from George L. Siemon’s article in Organic Sense on January 28th, 2011 makes this graphically clear. (George Siemon is CEO of Organic Valley, one of the largest cooperatives of organic farmers in our country.) His quote follows:
“The biotech industry has waged a complete war on the Secretary of Agriculture for following the Supreme Court order… They used all their influence to have the Secretary’s job challenged. There here have been op-eds in major papers and magazines (Sack Vilsack, Forbes), special meetings with the White House, grilling by the Justice Department, endless lobbying, and on Thursday of last week, a Congressional member forum was held where the Secretary was taken to the wood shed and asked repeatedly why he had not approved RR-alfalfa sooner.”
This kind of action has been characteristic of elements in the biotech industry over the past two decades or longer. Even though the biotech industry rides roughshod over questions about GMO safety, it has done all in its power to keep the public from knowing what foods contain GMO products. The FDA ruled two decades ago that there was no need to label GMOs in food. In practical terms, the result of this “hands-off” posture by the FDA is that the biotech industry is given the sole responsibility of monitoring the safety of its own products.
I am personally skeptical of the long-term safety of GMOs, and in view of its track record, I simply don’t trust the biotech industry to do what’s right for us. It is time for all GMO foods to be so labeled. I personally avoid soybean, corn, canola, and cottonseed oil, as well as most processed foods because of the likelihood that they may contain GMO ingredients. However, we should not have to guess about what foods are genetically engineered or may contain genetically modified products. They should be clearly labeled.
There are national campaigns to persuade Congress to require GMO labeling of foods. National polls show that over 80 percent of Americans favor such labeling. The biotech industry will not relinquish its political clout to please the American people, but if the public becomes aroused about it, the political field could shift.
My personal feelings about GMO labeling are summarized in this little ditty:
Let’s label GMOs
Are they safe? Tests say “No!”
Good for Health? Let’s not guess!
Should we label them? YES, YES, YES!!!
The ditty may seem silly, but it makes an important point. No one knows what the answers are regarding the long-term safety or health impacts of GMOs — not the public, not the scientific community, and certainly not the political establishment. If biotech companies like Monsanto are willing to gamble with our health, we should at least have the option of deciding whether we want to be guinea pigs.
You can help create awareness of GMO’s by printing the Let’s label GMOs poster and printing a letter for your store manager. Tell all your friends about it too! If grocery stores and politicians across the country begin to be inundated with requests to label GMOs, something will shift. I also recommend avoiding GMO products to the best of your ability.
All the best,
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH